No matter how great the structure of your book is or how well it’s directed at your target audience, it won’t matter much if you don’t pay attention to the sentence-level detail. This is where the difference lies between someone who strings together words and someone who is a great writer. So how do you become the latter? How do you improve your writing? Author Sacha Black has a few tips.
Sacha Black is a bestselling author, host of The Rebel Author Podcast and a professional speaker. She writes both fiction and nonfiction: YA and adult fantasy but also books about writing. One of these is The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences, a treasure trove of tips to help you get the details right and improve your writing. Let’s look at some of Sacha’s tips.
Writers have to read differently
Sacha believes that if you want to improve your writing, you have to read like a writer. This means that when you read another author’s work, you can pick out and spot tools, tricks, tactics, methods, and devices that the author is using to create a particular effect.
One way to do this is to highlight, underline, and make notes as you go along. (Sacha calls it “committing sacrilege” as many of us were taught to revere and care for books as precious items.) If a sentence stands out to you or makes you feel something, an emotional response, make a note of it.
Examining sentence-level details
Once you’ve reached the end of the book, go back and look at each sentence you’ve marked. Now ask yourself:
- How have they made me feel this particular emotion?
- What literary tools have they employed, and why?
- How have they used punctuation and to what effect?
- Is there a rhythm and cadence to the sentence?
- Have they used really long or really short words?
- Have they used juxtapositions?
- Have they used metaphors? If so, what’s the structure of the metaphor?
“But already the edges were rubbing off the memory’s freshness. I could feel it degrading in my hands.”Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood
What makes this phrase so effective is that the author takes an intangible concept – a memory – and makes it tangible. In this example, Melissa Albert uses tools like personification and juxtaposition – placing two contrasting ideas next to each other – to great effect.
While we’re talking about the juxtaposition of intangible and tangible, note that a good writer can also do the opposite: making the tangle intangible:
The chunk of dark chocolate was calling my name.
The pillow crumpled in sorrow as I tossed it onto the floor.
Pros and cons of filtering
Filtering is when you add in an extra layer of narration that is unnecessary. It’s using statements like, “I heard”, “I saw”, “I felt” and “I thought” when the rest of the sentence is already implying this. For example, if you say, “The owl hooted,” the reader can infer that the character has heard it. Filtering would be saying, “She heard an owl hoot.”
Sometimes, however, you can use filtering to great effect. Melissa Albert technically uses filtering in the sentence, “I could feel it degrading in my hands.” And yet, within the context, you would lose something in simply saying, “It degraded in my hands.” Here, highlighting the “feeling” works to highlight an emotion even though Alberta has not identified the emotion, only that she could “feel” it.
Filtering often appears in another aspect of writing that many authors struggle with: how to use dialogue tags.
How to use dialogue tags
The purpose of a dialogue tag is to identify who is speaking. It’s the “He said,” or “She asked,” or “They exclaimed,” that either precedes or follows a bit of dialogue.
Dialogue tags as are only necessary to make it crystal clear who is saying what. If you’re writing dialogue between two characters, you won’t need many dialogue tags, since there will most likely be a back-and-forth between the speakers. However, when something – an action or a movement, for instance – interrupts and detracts from the dialogue, you’ll need to reintroduce a dialogue tag to indicate who is speaking directly afterwards.
Many writers feel that they have to vary their dialogue tags. However, Sacha believes that it’s better to stick to the basic “says” or “said”: they don’t detract, since the reader becomes blind to them. As soon as you use a different dialogue tag, you’re drawing the reader’s attention away from the dialogue itself.
The reader should be able to infer the dialogue tag description from the way you’ve written the dialogue. For instance, “I don’t think so!” implies a raised voice and indignation. Not using a dialogue tag here means you’re following another rule of great writing: that of showing instead of telling.
Many beginner authors rely too much on adverbs. Sacha believes that most of the time, you can remove an adverb from a sentence without affecting the meaning. If you need an adverb, it’s most likely because you’re not using the right verb. For example, instead of saying, “She hit him gently,” you can say, “She nudged him.” And instead of, “She hit him hard,” you can say, “She punched him.”
Unintentional Use of Repetition
There are ways to use repetition intentionally for effect. However, when you use it unintentionally, it looks like sloppy writing.
We all have unique speech patterns and these include repeated words and phrases. These are crutch words and phrases like “but”, “and then”, “just”, and “all at once” that many of us use frequently. Most of the time, we don’t realize how often we’re using these words and phrases. However, software like ProWritingAid can help you identify this type of repetition.
Other, less obvious types of repetition include:
- The repeated use of a letter, such as having multiple characters’ names start with the same initial
- Character repetition like having two mentor archetypes
- Opening and/or closing each chapter in a similar way, for instance with dialogue or a setting description.
You have to consciously look for these types of repetition. However, a good editor will alert you to them too.
Improve your writing
These are just a few practical tips to help you dig into the anatomy of prose, examine sentence-level detail, and improve your writing in the process.
Listen to our podcast chat with Sacha
If you’d like to hear the conversation with Sacha, tune into The Empowered Author Podcast. We encourage you to subscribe, rate, and review the podcast wherever you consume your podcasts. Of course, you can listen to Sacha’s episode right here.